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What is "Big Data?"

Facebook users have probably noticed that the advertisements on their pages change depending on what they post. A recently engaged woman may see advertisements for wedding invitations or honeymoon destinations; a man who frequently visits fitness blogs may find ads for weight loss supplements or local gyms. Similarly, websites like Amazon will often suggest items to customers, based on previous items they have viewed. Previous customers may receive timely emails that contain coupons relevant to products they have purchased in the past. Each of these is an example of how "Big Data" can be seen in daily life.

In order to understand Learning Analytics, it is necessary to understand the concept of Big Data. Big Data refers to the wealth of information that can be gathered and stored online, from information stored by retailers about what items customers are purchasing, to information about personal interests expressed on social media platforms. In the following video, Christopher Barnatt from ExplaingingComputers.com gives an overview of what the term "Big Data" means, and the challenges of processing this data.



In the video, Barnatt mentions three "v's," but other sources incorporate four. The following infographic describes the four "v's" of Big Data: volume, velocity, variety, and veracity. Volume refers to the amount of data that can be collected, variety refers to the many different types of data, velocity refers to how quickly data can be collected and used, and veracity refers to the accuracy of the data. Organizations need to determine what data they would like to collect, how much of it they need, and how they can use it to their benefit.

Click here to enlarge the infographic in a new window.


Some fields have begun embracing Big Data as a way to improve their business practices. In their report on Learning Analytics, George Siemens of Athabasca University and Phil Long of the University of Queensland describe how Big Data has transformed the medical field. In the past, physicians based many decisions on prior experience, but now they have moved to making decisions based on data. In their report, they explain that "Medicine is looking even further toward computational modeling by using analytics to answer the simple question “who will get sick?” and then acting on those predictions to assist individuals in making lifestyle or health changes." Based on the successes of fields like medicine, educational leaders have begun to embrace the idea of Big Data as a tool for progress.

According to the 2014 Horizon Report, Learning Analytics is "the field associated with deciphering trends and patterns from educational big data, or huge sets of student-related data, to further the advancement of a personalized, supportive system of K-12 education." Educational leaders have realized that data from sources like students' online behavior is just as valuable as standardized test data. The Horizon Report estimates that it will be two to three years before Learning Analytics can be adopted.

To learn more about Learning Analytis and its purpose, click here.